A holiday getaway to Costa Rica ended in a fiery plane crash that claimed the lives of a family beloved within their community — a mother and father who had practiced medicine more than decade at Morton Plant Hospital and two teenage children pursuing the arts and social activism.
In all, 12 people died Sunday when the plane crashed in a wooded area on a planned flight from Punta Islita in northwestern Costa Rica to the capital city of San Jose.
Killed in the crash were Dr. Mitchell Weiss, 52, and his wife, Dr. Leslie Weiss, 50, of Belleair, and their children Hannah Weiss, 19, and Ari Moses Weiss, 16. Also killed were a family of five on vacation from Scarsdale, N.Y., a guide from a California-based tour company, and the two flight crew members.
Costa Rican investigators said Monday that strong winds or mechanical problems most likely caused the crash of the single-engine, turbo-prop Cessna 208 Caravan chartered from the airline Nature Air.
Friends described the Weiss family as committed to helping others and deeply involved in Congregation B’nai Israel of St. Petersburg, where they worshiped.
"That was their lives’ work," said friend Pam Kravitz. "They were very, very giving. They were amazing. This is a tragedy to lose them."
The couple left the Philadelphia area around 2004 and moved to Belleair, according to public records.
Mitchell Weiss was head of interventional radiology for Radiology Associates of Clearwater and practiced at Morton Plant in Clearwater. Leslie Weiss, a pediatrician, had served as a neonatal hospitalist at Morton Plant since 2004 and also worked with the national Pediatrix Medical Group.
"We were deeply grieved this morning to learn of the deaths of two beloved members of our team," Morton Plant president Kris Hoce said in a news release. "Their lives and medical skills have touched so many in and around our community, and we are forever grateful to them."
As news of the crash spread Monday, relatives, friends and neighbors struggled with the idea that the Weiss family would not be returning.
"It’s a tragedy and a loss for their families and to ours at Congregation B’nai Israel," Rabbi Jacob Luski said. "It’s a horrible loss. They will be missed."
Steven Hirschfield, a Weiss family acquaintance who operates the IONTB news site in the Tampa Bay area, said the trip to Costa Rica was a family vacation for the Weiss family. Hirschfield said he learned of the deaths late Sunday and hurried to tell his two children before they learned about it from social media.
"Our kids were close," he said. "I rushed to let them know."
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said his daughter and Hannah Weiss attended school together through the eighth grade. Although the Weisses didn’t live in the city, they were involved in philanthropy and local Jewish groups.
"Ours hearts are very, very heavy right now," Kriseman said. "They were very nice people."
Children Hannah and Ari were involved with the New York-based United Synagogue Youth movement for conservative Jewish teens. A statement from the organization said Hannah Weiss served as a past vice president and Ari was a chapter president.
Hannah Weiss was earning a joint degree at Columbia University and List College, the undergraduate school of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. List College dean Shuly Rubin Schwartz said in a statement that Weiss had emerged as a student leader and ardent environmental activist.
"She was driven by a real sense of social justice," Schwartz said.
University of Tampa student Bailee McQueen, 20, recalled Hannah Weiss as a student who never looked down on others and always tried to help classmates.
"She was genuinely a kind person," McQueen said by phone. "She was trying to make the world a better place."
Chloe Schnitt, 16, described Ari, a sophomore, as a dedicated singer and actor who dazzled audiences at venues including his school, Shorecrest Preparatory in St. Petersburg.
"He was such a good person," Schnitt said. "Everybody loved him. He didn’t play sports, but everybody knew him because of his acting. He was so sincere."
Also killed were New York residents Bruce and Irene Steinberg and their teenage sons Matthew, William and Zachary.
"We are in utter shock and disbelief right now," Bruce Steinberg’s sister, Tamara Steinberg Jacobson wrote on Facebook.
Rabbi Jonathan Blake of the Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale said in a statement on Facebook that the Steinbergs were involved in philanthropy and local Jewish groups. "This tragedy hits our community very hard," Blake wrote.
It was unclear whether the Weiss and Steinberg families knew each other or planned the trip together. Relatives declined to comment.
The U.S. State Department referred questions about the crash to Costa Rican aviation officials, saying in a news release, "We express our condolences to all those affected by this tragedy. We are in contact with Costa Rican aviation authorities and will continue to monitor the situation and provide all appropriate consular assistance."
In a statement, a spokeswoman with California-based Backroads said their employee on the flight was Amanda Geissler, a native of Thorp, Wis.
"Aboard the flight were nine Backroads guests, a Backroads Trip Leader and two flight crew members," the statement said. "A second Nature Air flight carrying Backroads guests and another Trip Leader arrived safely in San Jose."
Nature Air, which bills itself as Costa Rica’s largest domestic airline and touts its leadership in eco-tourism, did not return requests for comment.
With its pristine beaches and mountains on the Pacific Coast, Costa Rica is popular with North American and European tourists.
Costa Rica officials told local news media on Sunday that the cause of the crash was unknown but that the Nature Air plane encountered inclement weather when it first tried to land in Punta Islita to pick up the American passengers.
The plane returned to another airport before it eventually landed in Punta Islita around 11 a.m., officials said.
Michael Soto, deputy director of Costa Rica’s Judicial Investigation agency, said Monday, "No possibility can be left out for certain. We have two aspects: The principal one would be some weather condition and if there was a mechanical issue."
Information from Times wire services was used in this report. Contact Mark Puente at [email protected]